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NJ Open Government Notes

Judge: Conflict of interest lawsuit against two Bridgeton council members shall move forward.

Update: On January 12, 2018, a Stipulation of Dismissal was filed that “dismissed [the lawsuit] without prejudice and without attorney’s fees or costs” because the the case had “been rendered moot by [Bridgeton] having rescinded Resolution 67-17 & 43-17.”
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On Friday, October 20, 2017, Superior Court Judge Anne McDonnell refused to dismiss a taxpayer’s conflict of interest lawsuit against two Bridgeton (Cumberland County) City Council members who voted to sell city-owned land while they served on the boards of organizations that were allegedly “partners” or “collaborators” with the land purchaser.

During a public meeting held on March 7, 2017, the City Council passed Resolution No. 43-17 that authorized the sale of several parcels of real estate to River Grove Urban Renewal Housing Partners, LLC for a housing project.  The resolution noted that Tri-County Community Action Agency, Inc. was one of the “partners involved in the project.”  The resolution passed by a 3-2 vote, with Council President Gladys Luguardo-Hemple and members James Curtis Edwards and Jack Surrency voting in favor and members William D. Spence and Michael D. Zapolski, Sr. voting against.

In his lawsuit, Bridgeton resident Thomas Martin alleged that Tri-County Community Action Agency, Inc. also goes by the name Gateway Community Action Partnership and that Council member Edwards served on that organization’s board of directors at the time of his March 7th vote.  In their answer to the lawsuit, Edwards and Surrency admitted to the truth of these allegations.

Martin alleged that he had warned Edwards during the public portion of the March 7th meeting that he could not vote on Resolution 43-17 because he “had a clear conflict of interest” due to him serving on Gateway’s board. (Bridgeton Mayor Albert B. Kelly also serves as Gateway’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO).)

Martin’s lawsuit also alleged that Surrency and Edwards served, respectively, as Chairman of the Board and President/CEO of Complete Care Health Network and that Complete Care “is a self-described ‘partner’ and ‘collaborator’ with Gateway.”  In their answer to the suit, Edwards and Surrency “neither admitted nor denied” this allegation but Complete Care’s website shows that Gateway is one of its “Partners & Collaborators.”  Similarly, Gateway’s website features an article titled “Gateway, Inspira & Complete Care Partnership will WOW the community.”  Martin’s lawsuit further alleged that Surrency formerly served as a Gateway board member and that Surrency, Edwards and Mayor Kelly all serve on the Bridgeton Municipal Port Authority which will be directly affected by the the sale of the property.

After casting his March 7th vote, Edwards resigned from Gateway’s board by way of a March 10, 2017 letter written on Complete Care’s letterhead.  In his lawsuit, Martin characterized Edwards’ resignation as “a transparent and ineffective attempt to absolve himself of any conflicts.”

At its April 18, 2017 regular meeting, the City Council brought up Resolution 67-17 which was very similar to Resolution 43-17.  According to Martin’s lawsuit, Resolution 67-17 was not listed on the meeting’s agenda and wasn’t raised for a vote until after Zapolski had left the meeting.  According to the suit, the absence of the resolution from the agenda and the timing of the vote were done for “the express and impermissible purpose of denying a vote to a known dissenter.”  The resolution was passed 3-1, with Luguardo-Hemple, Edwards and Surrency voting in favor and Spence voting against.

The main thrust of Martin’s lawsuit is that Edwards and Surrency were conflicted from voting on both 43-17 and 67-17 and that the court ought to render both resolutions null and void.

Despite Judge McDonnell’s July 20, 2017 order that required Surrency and Edwards to respond to Martin’s interrogatories by August 31, 2017, Surrency’s and Edwards’ lawyer told Martin’s lawyer in a September 9, 2017 letter that the pair “would not be answering interrogatories as a Motion to Dismiss will be filed in the next few days.”  (Both the order and the letter are attached as exhibit’s to Martin’s cross-motion.)  On September 14, 2017, Surrency and Edwards did file such a motion.  However, as noted above, Judge McDonnell, in her October 20, 2017 order, denied their motion and granted Martin’s cross-motion to require Surrency and Edwards to answer Martin’s interrogatories within 30 days and for the City to properly respond to Martin’s interrogatories in accordance with his demand letter of September 18, 2017. (The demand letter is attached as an exhibit to the cross-motion.)

By John Paff

Chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project